Hammer's Hound

Or, how to make a horror movie out of a beloved classic of mystery fiction.

This isn't such a stretch because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES strongly suggested the supernatural as the root of the curse that had haunted the Baskerville family and estate on the lonely expanses of Devon, near Dartmoor Prison. The mystery at hand, and ultimately the legend of the seemingly spectral hound that spells doom for the Baskervilles is resolved by the great detective Sherlock Holmes and his associate, Dr. John H. Watson, as the work of all-too human and present-day cunning.

A creature of rational thinking, Holmes' dismissal of the fantastic and other-worldly is not surprising. But his creator, whose non-Holmes literary output includes a number of horror and science fiction works (notably, the 1912 novel THE LOST WORLD), manifested a fancy for the incredible. And it is the atmosphere of lurking terror on the moors and the swampland known as the Great Grimpen Mire that provide THE HOUND with the a good portion of the thrills that have made it the most popular of the four Holmes novels Doyle published between 1887 and 1915.

Hammer Films, riding the crest of renewed enthusiasm for gothic horror movies it created with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA (1958, U.S. title: HORROR OF DRACULA), appreciated the supernatural element about THE HOUND and after purchasing the rights from the Doyle estate for a screen adaptation, proceeded to make it a vehicle for its two stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In order to make it a Hammer brand film, though, the screenplay by Peter Bryan contains a slew of changes from the original 1902 novel while remaining a recognizable Holmes story. The end result, under the direction of studio favorite Terence Fisher, is as much Hammer as Doyle, but is also highly entertaining.

This production, released between HORROR OF DRACULA and THE MUMMY in May 1959 (two months later in the U.S.), ups the supernatural content while maintaining the Holmesian sense of disbelief. The film opens with a flashback to the circa-1640 death of evil Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) during a night of Hellfire Club-like revels at Baskerville Manor in which he has kidnapped a tenant farmer's daughter and committed an offscreen atrocity against her naturally objecting father. The girl escapes, only to be tracked down and murdered by the rotten nobleman. His gloat over the crime is interrupted by the ghostly baying of a dog, which soon, and again unseen by the audience, tears into Sir Hugo and sends him to his just reward.

This well-constructed and highly atmospheric sequence on the benighted landscape then dissolves to the bright and comfortable rooms of 221B Baker Street in late-Victorian London, where a self-impressed and vaguely sinister Dr. James Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) has read aloud an account of the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles to Holmes (Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell). Holmes dismisses the legend but soon believes something more tangible than a ghostly hound threatens the life of the new heir to the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee).
This belief gains strength upon Holmes and Watson's first meeting with the new lord of the manor. Fans of the story are treated to Sir Henry's annoyance at his missing boots, but get an added thrill when a tarantula crawls out of one of the recovered boots and endangers Sir Henry. It's a Hammer touch that may seem extraneous to loyalists but which gives the film another touch of menace and from an exotic source.

It's one of many changes the script makes to the Doyle original (the Wikipedia entry on the movie does a sound job of summarizing all of the revisions made to the source novel) designed to create a spookier screen experience. Among these is the addition of an abandoned abbey where Holmes and Watson, following the death of the escaped Dartmoor convict Selden due to the resurrected hound, find that his body has been used in some gruesome blood sacrifice, hinting at the presence of some occult villainy. The abbey also serves as the site of the climactic battle between good and evil as the web-fingered Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his definitely non-spectral canine are thwarted in their mission to murder Sir Henry.

Another new location the movie uses is an old tin mine that Holmes believes was the hidden depository for the ancient knife used in desecrating Selden's corpse. He investigates with the aid of Stapleton (before we know of his perfidy) and Mortimer, who unlike the gentle country practitioner Holmes describes as "amiable, absent-minded and unambitious" in the novel, is more suspect here, especially when it appears he may have caused a cave-in that has trapped the detective. (Interestingly, a tin mine plays a key role in Bryan's original rural terror screeplay for Hammer, the 1966 classic PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES).

Stapleton is the chief villain of THE HOUND, but is more colorfully fleshed out in the Hammer production. Instead of the Doyle conception of an eccentric naturalist and neighbor to the Baskervilles, Stapleton is an unsuccessful and embittered farmer on the estate, lent an edge by Solon's surly, one-note performance. In this version, he's also a widower with a fiery daughter, Cecile (Marla Landi), a product of his marriage to a Spanish woman (she's his sister,named Beryl, in the novel). That Stapleton and Cecile may have embraced the dark arts in their quest to steal the estate from the rightful Baskerville heirs is not explored in the course of the movie, but adds to Holmes' contention that "there is more evil around us here than I have ever encountered before."

Although Stapleton's sister is portrayed in some screen and television versions of THE HOUND as non-complicit in his crimes, Cecile in the Hammer adaptation serves as a romantic diversion for Sir Henry, a means of luring the heir into a death trap. Cecile happens to be guilty all the way, especially when she gleefully confesses her part in the death of Sir Charles, Sir Henry's predecessor. Screaming for her life as she sinks into the Great Grimpen Mire (Stapleton's presumed fate in the novel) offers a suitably horrifying conclusion to the mystery, not dramatized in the story but chillingly left to the imagination as Holmes points out Stapleton's limited escape options.

But the biggest change the Hammer production offers is that it's the first version of THE HOUND shot in color, benefiting the film immensely by not only making the doings on the moors more immediate but in stressing the at-times elaborate set design; the rooms shared by Holmes and Watson stand out clearly with all of its clutter of books, letters, pipes and tobacco, to which Holmes aficianado Cushing may have offered some suggestions. The Baker Street setting is appropriately well-lit and warm, befitting the center of light and reason that Holmes' domain represents.

By contrast, the color cinematography of Jack Asher makes the paneled interiors of Baskerville Hall appear dark and brooding, a reminder of new and ancient terrors beyond its walls. Significantly, Holmes advises Sir Henry not to venture out onto the moors at night "where evil is exalted." The nighttime scenes express this sentiment beautifully.

Asher also captures a magnificent shot of Watson looking back at the abbey with a distant figure (actually Holmes)standing next to the ruins in the gathering twilight. James Bernard's music eerily underscores the visual effect.

The previous well-known film version of THE HOUND was the 1939 Fox release that introduced Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the immortal sleuthing pair. Shot in glorious black-and-white and highlighting every shadow and wisp of fog in its re-creation of the moors, this HOUND is justly famous if, in contrast to Hammer's version, too loyal to the Doyle story. The new HOUND eschewed the stately horrors of the previous entry for increased thrills and surprisingly little on-screen blood, a complaint leveled at CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA.

It might have been that comparative restraint that made THE HOUND less of a smash than the earlier gothic entries and THE MUMMY, released in September 1959 and also co-starring Cushing and Lee, another triumph for the studio. Or perhaps the variations from Doyle displeased the Holmes fan base. Whatever the case, THE HOUND is a handsome affair and so representative of Hammer at its production height, turning out a memorably suspenseful and exciting piece of cinema.

Acting values were not among THE HOUND's deficiencies. Cushing channels his Van Helsing characterization from HORROR OF DRACULA (and some of the supercilious attitude of his Baron Frankenstein), but brings vitality and action to the role of Holmes. His electric approach sometimes rivals that of Rathbone's conception of the Great Detective as being continually on point. Faced with that kind of interpretation, Morell effectively underplays Watson to great effect. He more than carries the picture in scenes without Cushing, avoiding comparisons with Nigel Bruce's comic relief for Rathbone at Fox and Universal.

For British audiences, Morell and Cushing were well-remembered for their performances in the controversial 1954 BBC-TV adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 (Cushing's Winston Smith vaulted the actor to prominence), and they made a remarkably testy pair of opponents in a later Hammer crime thriller, CASH ON DEMAND (1961).

For Christopher Lee, the role of Sir Henry made a pleasant change from his demonic Dracula and the makeup demands of the pitiable Creature from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Sir Henry allowed Lee to indulge himself in a heroic role he'd previously been denied in his career due to his height and dark looks, and he cuts a noble figure as the new lord of the manor before consenting to be another marvel of makeup as THE MUMMY.

Supporting performances are effective, including De Wolff's unsympathetic Mortimer and Solon's aforementioned Stapleton. Marla Landi's spitfire interpretation goes effectively evil as a lead-up to the hound's attack on Sir Henry. Miles Malleson, whom Hammer retained for comic relief in its horror films, delivers as an eccentric Bishop Frankland, whose character also underwent a change from the novel.

When planning its production of THE HOUND, Hammer was reportedly considering additional Holmes adaptations, but may have been warned off the idea by the reception that greeted THE HOUND. For its stars, though, associations with the Doyle creation continued.

Cushing toned down his approach for a well-received series of adaptations for BBC-TV in 1968 (with Nigel Stock as Watson), including a respectable version of THE HOUND as a two-part entry. He headlined an original Holmes adventure in the made-for-television feature MASKS OF DEATH (1984), co-starring John Mills as the good doctor.

Working extensively on the Continent in the early '60s, Lee found himself promoted to the lead in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE (1962), co-directed by Terence Fisher (with Hammer favorite Thorley Walters as Watson) and produced by CCC Films of Germany, which issued the wildly imaginative yet entertaining Doctor Mabuse and Edgar Wallace thrillers of the period. Lee makes an impressive sleuth here, although he's dubbed by another actor in the English-language version.

After essaying an excellent Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970), Lee returned to the role of the famed detective for a pair of 1991 made-for-TV features produced by Harry Alan Towers, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE LEADING LADY and INCIDENT AT VICTORIA FALLS. His Watson in both of these productions was his onetime schoolmate, the late Patrick Macnee, who like Lee, passed away in June 2015(Lee on the 7th, Macnee on the 25th, both aged 93).

For all of its differences from the source novel in order to punch up the horror effects, the Hammer HOUND retains its thrills today through the skill of a studio attuned to a new trend in gothic tales and an enthusiastic cast. Despite numerous remakes for the cinema and television, it is still among the best the screen has had to offer.


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